And Then There Was the Time I Met Mario Lemieux…

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So last Friday was shaping up to be the usual fare; light dinner at home, followed up with catching up on TV shows or a movie, then sleep. During the hockey off-season, it’s what my wife and I do to decompress from the week.

About half an hour before I was due to leave work, I got a call from a friend. Seems her boss was in need of some hockey fans to attend a function out at the Maryland Live! casino. Specifically, Pittsburgh Penguin fans. “Why is that?” I asked.

“Because Mario Lemieux is the guest and they want to have Pens fans there to hobnob.”

Normally I tend to discuss plans with my wife before committing but in this case? “We’ll go. What are the details?”

After gathering the details, I phoned my wife – whose first words were “You need to call…” and I interrupted with the news that we were already on the list. We had just enough time to get home, change, gather some items to be autographed, and out the door to make it to the casino in time.

It was a great evening. There were only about 20 people in attendance, so Mario went table to table, signing memorabilia and chatting with the guests. When he arrived at our table, we took some quick photos with the cameraphone (the lighting was horrible) and he signed the two pucks and the jersey I’d brought. He also spent about 5 minutes talking Pittsburgh hockey with me, which was – to me – absolutely incredible. I thanked him for his career, how he’d saved the team, and the Penguins class organization before he moved on. He was incredibly gracious, kind, and humble; it’s easy to see how the organization takes its lead from their owner.

He did chuckle when he saw the puck I wanted signed. “Ah, there’s an oldie for you.” (It has the 90’s team logo on it.) I explained I’d gotten the puck during the Vancouver game where he’d notched his 600th goal. He smiled. “Cool.”

The casino did take photos of each guest with Mario afterwards, and then printed them out for us. They also gave us a framed and signed photograph of Mario as a keepsake.

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So why am I so geeked about this?

Mario is, in my honest opinion, the best hockey player of my generation. Beyond Gretzky, even. He is the reason I began following hockey, as I remember being entranced by the hoopla around his drafting. I’ve followed the Penguins ever since then, through the horrible Howard (Sudden Death) Baldwin era to nearly losing the team and beyond. The Penguins were responsible for my moving to Pittsburgh after college (another long story), the source of many date nights with my wife, and an anchor of stability during our relocation to DC. The Penguins are a happy tie to our Pittsburgh, one that we’ll most likely never let go.

To that end, I’ve always told my wife if I was to ever meet a professional hockey player, I wanted to meet Mario. Not just handshake and get something signed, but to have the chance to converse. I’m not much for meeting celebrities and people in the spotlight, but there are a scant few I’d like to meet and tell them how much I admire them, appreciate their work. Mario Lemieux is one of those few.

And this past Friday, I got to see that dream realized.

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